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USA 2008
Directed by
Gus Van Sant
128 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Synopsis: A docu-drama about Harvey Milk, pioneering San Francisco gay activist who was assassinated in 1978.

Across the board, 2009 will be a tough year for the Oscars. There are so many excellent films and performances in contention that the idea of choosing the “best” in any category is irrelevant. Is Milk the best film, is Gus Van Sant the best director, is Dustin Lance Black’s script the best script? Compared to the co-nominees I wouldn’t like to say but if I had to chose Best Male Actor I’d give it to Sean Penn. Stretching back to 1985’s The Falcon And The Snowman, Penn has been given to portraying emotionally edgy characters. He does it well and usually in interesting films but to a certain extent it is his schtick. His Harvey Milk, however, is probably his finest work to date as an actor simply because he gives us such a remarkably un-Sean Penn-like portrayal of the man. As anyone who has seen the excellent Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) will attest, Penn captures Milk with extraordinary authenticity, not by mimicry but by embodying his spirit. As fine as is Frank Langella’s Nixon, as touching as is Mickey Rourke’s Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, to cite the two closet rivals for the Best Actor trophy, neither actor achieves the level of transformation which Penn does. That he portrays such a rare, committed individual as Milk should also work in his favour.

Although the lynch-pin of the film, Penn is only one of the elements that make it so good. The rest of the cast are excellent with Josh Brolin particularly effective as Milk's beleaguered political opponent and eventual assassin, Dan White whilst James Franco gives a winning showing as Scott, Harvey’s long-time lover. Emile Hirsch, who starred in the Penn-directed Into the Wild in 2007 has a smaller role, one that I found slightly irritating in its self-conscious earnestness, a quality that is perhaps one of the few criticisms that one might address to the film. Milk is however, not a warts-and-all biopic but rather a celebration of Milk and what he achieved for gay rights in pre-AIDS America.

In this respect the film is impressive, Dustin Lance Black’s script gives us both a sensitive portrait of Milk and a detailed account of his political career whilst Van Sant uses archival footage skilfully to give us an insight into a level of normative discrimination that was only rivalled in its God-given bigotry by Jim Crow segregation. Unlike the civil rights movement which in some 40 years has achieved remarkable results in America, the director, who is himself gay, no doubt is aware that gay rights are less firmly entrenched in the Land of the Free and as much as the film is about a struggle some thirty years ago, it is a call for eternal vigilance. In this respect the use he makes of archival footage of Anita Bryant, who almost overturned gay rights in America with her evangelistic “family values” rhetoric, is truly frightening.

After a long run of quite difficult “art” films extending back to 2002’s Gerry, Milk is a return towards a more mainstream style of film-making for Van Sant. It is a skilful production. with Van Sant striking a nice balance between documentary and drama, between the specifics of the gays rights movement and the broader issues of civil rights activism. In this respect the film speaks not simply to a same-sex audience but to anyone who values self-determination. Whether The Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences votes Milk Best Picture or not, for which is has been nominated, it is certainly a fine one.

FYI: As it turned out Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar and Dustin Lance Black won Best Original Screenplay




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